7-Day Book Challenge: Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail

I stole this book from the King County Library system. I didn’t forget to return it. I didn’t lose it and find it years later. I made a deliberate, conscious, and purposeful decision to keep it because I needed it and back in 1981 I didn’t have any way to get my own, lawfully-owned copy.

I happened upon it by chance; I worked as a page at the Burien library, which was, it seemed to me, a rather twee (though it would be years before I was introduced to the concept of “twee”) job title for those of us who shelved the library’s returned books. Sorting and shelving books was a fabulous way to discover titles I’d never have otherwise found, and this was, perhaps, the best of the treasures I uncovered, for it helped me find a way back to writing.

Kind of ridiculous to think that, at 17, I’d already lost my way as a writer, but I had. Actually, considering all the ridiculous things we do and say to children around the subject of writing, it’s not ridiculous at all. At any rate, I’d lost my way, and this book helped me find it again.

“What do you do with this book? There aren’t any rules. Start anywhere and go anywhere….If a teacher likes the book, don’t let her (or him) shove it down your throat and make lessons out of it, unless that’s the way you want to use it. And tell your teacher, if you have to, that the kind of writing this book is about isn’t a spelling assignment, or a lesson in grammar or handwriting or how to make paragraphs. This writing is to get down your good ideas, and what you think and feel inside.”

–Jacqueline Jackson, Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail ©1974 Little, Brown and Company

The author, Jacqueline Jackson, wrote children’s books that I didn’t find particularly compelling but this book gave me a vision of what life as a writer could be:  One filled with kids and books and talk about books and humor and joy and mess-ups that were not failures or potential triggers for frightening adult anger but material for great stories. (There’s a whole chapter on the merits of being horrid!)

This was no how-to-be-a-writer guide that required me to live my life as a loaded gun or end it with my tragically young head in an oven. It was a book full of anecdotes and kids and dogs and mishaps and references to books I already loved (Harriet the Spy!) and books I was sure I would love as soon as I read them. A big part of me, even though I was nearly grown, longed to be a child in this household. (Her children had wonderful names–the youngest was Elspeth–and they had a dog named Frodo! Who knew you could do that?) Since it was too late for me to have that kind of childhood, I dreamed that some day I might create such a life for the children I hoped to have.

The title is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster Quadrille”:  “Turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance,” and this was the first book I read that suggested that the path to writing was not, in fact, to shut oneself up in a room with one’s demons but to enter into life as fully as possible and live to tell the tales. It probably doesn’t seem such radical stuff now, but for a good (read: “compliant”) student in the early 80s struggling with what she’d later know was anxiety and depression, the idea that there was a whole different way to learn about writing and to live as a writer than those I’d been taught was ground-shifting. Life-saving.

The librarian in me now would be perfectly fine with the younger me keeping this book.  (But you don’t have to steal it now. Amazon has multiple old copies available.)

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

Where was your outrage when…?

My children had, in many ways, an idyllic, throw-back childhood. We lived in a small mountain community, where neighborhood kids spent countless low-supervised hours tromping through woods as they acted out epic dramas in imaginary kingdoms built on the banks of the creek and river that ran past our homes.

On the 4th of July, most of us gathered for a parade, led by a local fire truck and an older, beloved couple who dressed as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. We all decorated bikes and wagons and walked with the kids and waved to neighbors who lined the streets and waved back. Like something out of a movie about times gone by–except it was our time.

I miss those days.

I miss how sweetly innocent and simple the 4th of July felt then. I miss the optimism I felt for our children’s futures. I miss my ignorance–which was, in many ways, bliss.

Because it’s all different now. My children are grown, and the 4th of July will likely never again be a sweet, simple, or nostalgic holiday for me. This year, I cannot look at this picture of my babies without thinking of the thousands of children currently being held, by my government, in cages away from their parents. I can’t help thinking of their parents and the pain they must be enduring as they imagine that of their children.

To all those who have asked/accused people like me, who are horrified at these actions and are raising our voices against it, Where was your outrage when___ (fill in the blank)? all I can really say is, “You’re right.” They aren’t always right about what actually happened in the past, but their question gets at an important and essential truth:  Our governmental institutions have been responsible for unjust, painful, outrageous actions all through my life, and I did not protest most of them. I didn’t even know about a lot of them.

Recently, my daughter asked me how I could bring children into such a difficult and troubled world (“just the climate issue alone, Mom!”), and the only answer I could give was that I didn’t understand, when I was making that decision, how troubled our world really is. “How could you not?” she demanded of me. “All the information was available.”

She is not wrong.

And I don’t have any kind of good defense. The second time Bush won the presidency through a questionable election, I checked out. I decided my contribution was going to come through my work as an educator and parent, and that that was enough. I stopped paying close attention because paying attention frustrated me and made me feel powerless and because–I understand now, but didn’t then–my privileges shielded me from the impact of so many things that were happening. I told myself that none of it really mattered that much. Life goes on, went on, much as it always had, for me. I checked out because I could. Simple as that.

There’s really no excuse for me not knowing the things I didn’t know then, but I know them now. And you know how it is with so many truths we don’t really want to know:  Once we know them, we can’t un-know them.

I can’t un-know that people of color have a very different lived experience in this country than people who look like me.

I can’t un-know that I have lived my whole life in a country founded on white supremacy, and that race has been at play in every aspect of our history.

I can’t un-know that we are in a place I never thought we could be but that I should have known was possible. The balance of powers is gone, as are collective agreements about how to play fair in a democracy. There appear to be very few checks still in place, and the ones that remain are under attack.

And this is knowledge I cannot simply turn away from, much as part of me wishes I still could.

It is not so much that I’ve become “woke” as that I’ve just started to pay attention again. To pull my head out of the sand. And to all who ask, “Where was your outrage when___?” all I can say is, “Fair question, but it’s a time-waster, a diversion, a straw man.”

That I wasn’t outraged when ____ does not invalidate my outrage now.

Just  because I (and so many others) failed to protest in the past, it does not mean we should be quiet now or that our protest now lacks legitimacy. It does not mean that past wrongs justify current ones. And it does not mean that our outrage now is only because we don’t like your guy. To be clear:  We don’t. He’s a racist, misogynistic, corrupt, dishonest man who’s surrounded himself with people a lot like himself.

The important fact is not that we dislike them as people, but that we don’t like what they are doing. We don’t like elimination of due process, violation of laws, and irreparable psychological damage done to children for political gain. We don’t like their lies and their abuses of power. We don’t like the ways in which they have not played fair. We don’t like any of them because collectively they pose a greater threat to our country than any I’ve ever seen. I like to think we’d be against that no matter who occupied the White House, if we knew about it.

What I know today is that patriotism requires so much more than fireworks and colorful streamers woven through the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It requires that we inform ourselves, seek out truth, and, once we know it, speak it to authority–through our words, our votes, and, if necessary, our protest. As the bumper sticker says, Dissent is Patriotic. Good Lord, as much as our country was founded on white supremacy, it was also founded on dissent. We have always been a complex, contradictory nation, one who idealizes tradition and decorum with the same breath we use to smash them. Our understanding and celebration of our country–our patriotism–should be equally dimensional.

While I’d like to wish you a happy 4th, that doesn’t seem the right sentiment this year. In fact, what I most wish for your 4th is that it be a complicated one, a mix of love and pride and anger and alarm and–above all else–one of resolve to preserve the best of what this day has traditionally stood for. Our children need that from us, much more than they need sparklers and streamers. (But hey, I hope you enjoy the sparklers and streamers. We need those, too.)

 

 

 

The life you save may be your own

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.”
~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

When I was a girl, stories were everything to me:  solace, companionship, beacon, and guide. Much later, stories literally saved my life.

The story I’ve been telling myself this past week is that we are living in a dark time. I believe this story to be true, even though I’ve wanted to believe otherwise–to believe that, perhaps, I’ve got the story wrong or that I’m not seeing all of it or that I’m giving too much importance to the wrong details. I think there is great danger in telling ourselves stories we want to believe even though they aren’t true. I believe this because of my own story, the harm I’ve done because I believed stories that later collapsed around me.

I am fully cognizant, though, that others in my country are telling themselves an entirely different story about who we are and what is happening to us. About who are the protagonists and antagonists and what the central conflict is, about whether that conflict is internal or external.

While there is so much I don’t know, and the versions of the dark story I am telling myself shift so much that I can’t seem to chart a constant course through it–some days fired up to take action and others so hopeless I retreat to silence and solitude–one thing I always believe in is the power of story to shape story.

So many of the stories I grew up believing have proven to be false. So many of the stories I’ve told myself have, the past few years, turned out to be fairy tales or myths or wishes more than truths.  The wonderful thing about being a writer, a teller of stories, though, is that you know revision is always an option. When we are open to the stories of others, we always run the risk that it will change our own–that we will realize we have to “kill our darlings,” perhaps throw out whole chapters or abandon what once seemed like the whole point of the thing. To some, I guess, this feels like ruin. We love our stories, and we don’t want them to change. But to me, it feels like possibility and relief. How amazing and interesting and freeing, that none of us are the sole authors of our plot line or themes, that it is always something we create in concert and collaboration with others, that a plot twist we never anticipated can save us. It’s such a burden, isn’t it, to feel that we alone must carry the weight of writing our own story? Maybe we can set that one down.

Whatever story you are telling yourself now, what I hope is that you will tell it to others, that we will all tell our stories to each other and listen to them with empathy. I hope you will listen most to the stories of reliable narrators, those who are seeing clearly rather than clinging to sinking ships and in their panic thrashing at and pushing under those who are in the water to save them. I hope we can collectively write and tell and share our way to a lighter time, to a narrative in which we strapped our lifeboats together and hauled into them as many of us as they could hold.

 

Scratchy voice

A few years ago, I used to try to call my grandmother on Sundays, and often when she answered her voice would be thick and scratchy. She’d clear her throat and explain that she hadn’t spoken to anyone all weekend, and so her voice wasn’t clear.

It is the same with writing–when the words haven’t come through our hands in awhile, they feel a bit clogged and it’s hard to get them out. The only remedy, I think, is to just start. To trust that our voice will find itself if we just start using it again.

I don’t think I wrote about it directly, but I began this year with a vow that I would not end the next one as I’d ended the previous three. I suppose if I had the gift of foresight and were still interested in such things as choosing a word for the year, mine for 2018 would have been “grief.” I knew, on New Year’s Eve, that things needed to change–and I changed them–but change is always ending and ending (at least for me) always has at least some element of grief to it.

In the months since I last wrote here, I left the home that was always more dream than simply a place to live. I lost the grandmother I used to call weekly (and then wrote to weekly), ending my run as a grand-daughter. I made and put into place a plan for finishing my career. I’m living in a place of more questions than answers, which is perhaps how life should always be, but it’s new for me. I am wading in as much possibility as loss, but sometimes all I can see is empty horizon. Sometimes I get knocked down by sneaker waves of sadness or anger. But other times I walk in deep enough to release my legs and float. It’s good to remember that floating is an option, always.

This isn’t much of a post, but it’ll do. Off to unpack some boxes and put up some shelves and pull some weeds.

 

Of docks and churches and libraries and love

Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.

Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now,  I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.

For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.

So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.

All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do:  My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.

I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.

Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.

It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:

“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”

Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:

Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.

How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then:  There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.

All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. And so are you.

I’m thinking of my brother Joe on his birthday today. For two weeks each year we are the same age, but on New Year’s Eve he takes a step ahead of me again. In the back of my mind, all through my life, I’ve known that one of my roles is to be my brother’s keeper. It is only in recent years that I have been able to see him more fully for who he is in his own right, separate from me.

What we all wouldn’t give, those of us who know him, to have fuller access to the brilliant mind we have only been able to see at a glimpse. When Joe was preschool age, in a program focused on teaching such life skills as toileting and eating with utensils, his teachers one day realized he was reading. My parents credit Sesame Street and The Electric Company–as well as Joe’s intelligence–for that self-taught accomplishment. When we were teen-agers, he used to sit on the living room floor each afternoon and write a sports report on a manual typewriter, perfectly capturing the voice of sports reporters. He still reads the newspaper every day, follows politics, listens to religious talk radio (that one’s a puzzler for us), watches sitcoms from our childhood, and tunes into every televised game the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners play. He adores dogs. When we were kids, he taught ours to chase cars. Some of you might remember him running along the side of the road in front of our house, barking at cars as they drove past, our terrier mutt Fritzie at his heels. (The 70s were a different time, eh?)
 

Joe was not accurately diagnosed (with autism) until we were in our early 20s–which means that his entire formal education failed to address many of his actual needs or develop his intellectual potential. Academics were basic and played a minimal role in his schooling, which is outrageous to me now but did not seem wrong then. Joe was already 10 when we passed the law that guaranteed a free and appropriate education to all children, and I think my parents were grateful that he was in school at all.

While the shifts in understanding and acceptance of autism that have happened in our lifetime are wonderful to see, wondering how things might have been different for him and our family if he’d been born at a later time is a mental path I rarely travel down because it is too painful (and pointless). A lack of services and understanding have limited his life to a degree I can hardly express. The world is a dangerous place for a young, mute man who cannot/will not comply with social norms, such as following directives from police officers. My parents have done what they felt they needed to do to keep him safe in it. (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the lose.) 

It has long seemed wrong to me that Joe’s care has been primarily the responsibility of our family alone. I am my brother’s keeper, but Joe is his own person, with his own feelings, needs, habits, and dreams. (After “graduating” from high school–which meant only that he turned 21 and was no longer eligible for educational services– he told our dad that he wanted to go to college, “like Rita.”) Joe belongs to the world as much as any of us do. What happens to the Joes in our society who do not have a safety net of family? What happens to Joe if the one beneath him frays and cannot hold? How do we value and care for those among us who cannot fit into all of our round holes? Or any of them? How can we better support them in being their full, autonomous selves?

Joe is my brother, but he–like any of us–is fundamentally yours, too. We haven’t done very well by him, in many ways. Later today, he’ll be opening a dog calendar from me. It’s what I give him every year. He’ll hang it in my parents’ utility room and faithfully turn its page on the first of every month, and he’ll be happy to have it. He seems to love those calendars. It’s fine for what it is, but I sure wish I–we– could give him more, and that in the pages of the days in the coming year he might find, in addition to cute dog photos, a life with more independence, freedom, and connection to his fellow humans. I hope that, for Joe, as we are coming to know better, we can do better. I hope it’s not too late for the boy who was born too soon.

 

And so this is Christmas

There are the children’s ornaments, one to commemorate each of their years, turning the tree into a time capsule of their youth. And here are the cookies your grandma used to make, and the tablecloth your great-grandmother crocheted. As you take out of their styrofoam boxes each of the ceramic North Pole houses your father collected in the ’90s, remember how your son used to love them and was so good about not touching the reindeer and elves, even though he wanted so badly to play with them. He’s grown up now, and now the village lives here, in your house, even though he does not. Your daughter is, too, though she still likes to snuggle her pup (who’s turned into an old dog), and she still wants her apple cut up like sunshine.

One night, after the gifts have been opened and the stockings emptied and the logs in the fireplace lit, you’ll find yourself returning to the words of a Yeats poem that haunted you 30 or more years ago. Even though you are not yet grey, or even old (not really, not yet), you’ll understand them in a way you didn’t then, and you’ll wonder at the mysteries science can’t explain–how you somehow knew (when it seems you couldn’t have, because so many of the pages in your book were still blank and could, in theory or fantasy, be filled with any number of possibilities) that those words were meant for you, that for you love, even at Christmas (or especially at Christmas), would be a pacing thing that hides amid a crowd of stars.

All the light we cannot see

My girl is back, and the house feels right in a way that it hasn’t in months and months and months. I haven’t been locking my bedroom door before going to bed at night, the way I do when I’m the only one sleeping here. Every night when I turn the little knob in the handle, I know I’m being silly. I know that no one is going to break in while I am sleeping. I know that even if someone were to try, that flimsy lock would be scant protection from harm. I feel the absurdity all the more when I consciously choose to leave the door unlocked the first night Grace is home.

Maybe she will need to come in during the night, I think, as if she were still a little girl who might need her mother in the darkest hours of the day.

In these first days back, it is just the two of us here. She is home for break, but both of us are still working. She has papers to write, and I have an all-day training to put on two days after her arrival. Her first night, a Wednesday, is my first day of migraine. I push through pain and fatigue and that constant low-level hum in my skull that keeps me from the sleep I need to conquer the headache. Every Thursday meal is take-out.

Friday afternoon, after the training is done and I am officially released for winter break, she tells me to go to bed. “Only for an hour,” I say. “I need to get my sleep back on track.” Nearly two hours later she wakes me, and we order a pizza. “Tomorrow we are eating real food,” I promise.

The next day I am supposed to attend a work-related meeting, but that night I hardly sleep. I’ve been trying not to take any more meds–I’m already over the recommended dose for the week, and in the past year there have been some stern conversations with me about that in which words such as “heart attack” and “stroke” have been used–but I can’t stand the pain any more. I swallow a pill at 4:00 AM, counting on the odds to be in my favor, so she won’t have to deal with any heart attack or stroke while she’s here alone with me.

Later that morning, after waking again, I’m still in migraine fog, but the pain has lifted. I miss my meeting, knowing that if I go I am guaranteeing myself another night like the one I’ve just had, and I don’t want to play medication roulette again.

We have a slow day. I putter, picking up the worst of the week’s clutter. We talk. She procrastinates on the paper due by 9:00 pm. I take a shower mid-day and go to the grocery store, so I can make good on my promise to cook real food. I give her feedback on her paper, the way I used to do when she was in high school. She clicks “send” on it, and I make popcorn and we watch a movie, snuggled together with the dogs.

Sunday morning I sleep in–finally–and wake with my head almost clear. Daisy dog and I settle in with a cup of tea and Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour, a memoir about living while dying of cancer. Riggs and her two sons are so young–she died before turning 40–that I can hardly stand reading it, but I do because the writing is so beautifully sharp, like sunshine on snow.

It is when she writes about wondering how to tell her sons that she is going to die, and I remember mine at the ages hers are in the memoir, that I have to take a break from it. During the year his dad and I were coming apart, Will had trouble sleeping. (Oh, nuts and trees, nuts and trees…) I would let him get out of bed and lie on the couch while I sat at the nearby computer, prepping for my next day’s lessons. When I was finally done working for the day, he’d be asleep. I would pick him up to carry him to bed, his arms gripping my neck as he breathed into it, his long legs dangling from my hips. I knew that in maybe less than a year, I’d no longer be able to carry him that way; he’d be too big and I’d be too small. The idea that there would be nights I couldn’t because we’d be sleeping under different roofs, that I would not be able to carry him because I wouldn’t be there, wrecked me. Reading now, this morning so many years from then, I can hardly stand to imagine all the feelings Riggs didn’t put into her book–or, at least, the feelings I imagine I would have had if, instead of a divorce, I’d been facing a terminal diagnosis.

I go to Facebook and distract myself with photos of friends, many from my own childhood. One has a son who just graduated from college. Others are cooking or attending parties or–more so than usual in this most wonderful time of the year–missing parents and grandparents who are forever gone. I see a message from my first best friend; we have both just celebrated birthdays. I reply, reminiscing about the time it snowed during our joint slumber party, and I feel myself choking up.

I miss her so. There are so many people I miss now. In response to my last post here, a cousin wrote, “I sure feel that I have missed much of your life.” Yes. Yes, we have missed much of each others’ lives. I remember the time she lived at our grandparents’ house, an interim stop on her flight from her parents’ nest. When I’d visit, she’d drive me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and polish my nails, and we’d sleep together in her bed. I remember lying there in the dark, under the eaves of a house none of us can now go home to, listening to her tell me stories about her mother and her sisters and her fiance, who was living in another state for reasons I don’t remember, and I miss her and our grandmother and that house.

I think about the horribly corny movie Grace and I watched on Friday (The Christmas Prince), which we howled through because it was so full of terrible cliches. When the main character tells a child that her dead parent is always with her and never really gone, I think:  That’s such bullshit. Why do we tell each other these things that aren’t true?

I cuddle the dog, sip the tea, wondering when Grace will get up. I think about how I so often feel when I am alone in the house, contemplating what I assume will be my future, and how it feels so different now, just knowing that she is sleeping in the room beneath me and will soon come up the stairs, groggy from sleep.

I think about how I missed half the nights of the second half of my son’s childhood. About how I have missed  years of the lives of people I love. About how I am entering the third year of missing half of Cane’s days, and he mine. It is not enough to send cards or exchange Facebook messages or see each other once every few years. We need to share meals and errands and hugs. We need to carry each other to bed, whisper truths in our shared dark.

Unlike Nina Riggs, I am still alive, and I find myself wondering what I would want, how I would live if, like her, I learned on the night of winter solstice that my condition was eminently terminal–that I could not count on years in which to figure out what is essential and what can be–should be–let go.

I wonder why it is only in the not-something that I see so clearly what a something is. That it is only in my girl’s absence that I have seen all the things most precious in the life we once shared, and that it is only in her presence again that I am seeing the true outlines of all that my solitude does and does not hold.

Autolessonography

It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’re  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.

 

There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.